SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va., July 18, 2012 – Intriguing, deeply disturbing, and perhaps ten minutes too long, Neil LaBute’s play In a Forest, Dark and Deep is yet another CATF drama that gets back to this long-running festival’s original tag-line: “Think Theater.” Penned by a well-known film director and playwright, and thoughtfully and economically directed by Ed Herendeen, Forest is a two-person play that slowly uncovers skeletons in the family closet that in turn lead to clues that may solve the puzzle of a mysterious death.
The events of the play all unfold during a dark and stormy night—symbolism, anyone?—at an out-of-the-way vacation cabin that’s apparently used by college professor Betty (Johanna Day) and her husband, whom we never get to see. The space is strewn with boxes and other assorted flotsam as the lights come up, and we soon learn that it’s being vacated.
To move all the stuff, Betty has enlisted the help of her sometimes-estranged younger brother, Bobby (Joey Collins). As they haphazardly attempt to pack and move boxes out in the midst of the storm, bristly, inquisitive Bobby tries to get to the bottom of what’s going on in his sister’s life and gradually discovers a lot more than he’s bargained for.
The plot of Forest seems to meander, but it’s all to a purpose. It’s a little bit like one of those vintage PBS “Sherlock Holmes” or “Miss Marple” mysteries where we meet some strange characters, discover something murderous, scandalous, or merely shocking, and begin a voyage of discovery along with our favorite detective to puzzle out the details of an unfolding mystery story. As an unofficial detective, Bobby is probably a bit more—no considerably more—like the quirky, acidic Holmes. He’s quick with the instinct, picks up on phrases and evidence that others would ignore as trivial, and also possesses a dark side that’s not good to cross.
We soon learn that Bobby is a bit of a black sheep in his family—intelligent, but unsuccessful in his career choices and aimless in his life. But we also learn that there’s an odd contrast between him and his sister. Betty is a success, both career-wise and money-wise, as a college prof. But the personal side of her life has been a serial mess as simultaneously carrying on affairs while dissing men seems to be her stock in trade.
As the plot develops, it’s clear that there are dark, uncomfortable secrets in Betty and Bobby’s family that go way beyond the usual sibling spats. Bobby is obsessed with this and, as he teases out the past from his reluctant and secretive sister, he begins to learn the real secrets of the cabin he’s helping to clear out.
Forest is a crackly, snarly, and unpleasant play about two people that don’t like each other very much but still share family ties. But what makes them different is this: Bobby has decided he’s pretty much done with lying his way through life, while his sister can’t figure out any other way to get from one way to the next. Their history, ultimately, would fit neatly into the single, inviolable paradigm that dominated the life and career of Fox’s late-lamented, frequently psychotic physician, Gregory House: “Everybody lies.” Bobby—no paragon of virtue himself—decides that the time for this is over, which moves Forest inexorably toward its bizarre yet oddly satisfying conclusion.
LaBute’s play crackles with energy and family tension. Things are tense on stage almost from the very moment the theater lights come up on the distraught Betty, and they don’t let up at all until the drama is nearly over. Which brings us to the one problem in this play—the ending is a bit overwritten.
The meandering postscript after Forest’s shocking revelations is really nothing more than that surly beast that most writers of fiction and drama encounter sooner or later: over-explaining your explanation. Forest is an intriguing play, holding the audience’s interest nearly every step of the way. Snipping out the somewhat labored explanations of this or that, particularly near the close of the play would tighten things up and retain the crackle of excitement that LaBute is able to sustain throughout the rest of his drama, seemingly without effort.
If you like your family dramas raw and rough, Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep is definitely the play for you. Like all this year’s CATF dramas, it’s playing through July 29 in Shepherdstown and is well worth taking that West Virginia excursion you’ve been putting off in order to catch it before the festival is over.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars.)
CATF plays run through July 29, 2012. For tickets and information, visit the CATF website.
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